A military dictatorship is only as powerful as its arsenal. Happily for the Myanmar junta, it has many friends eager to supply the weapons it needs to keep its citizens in line. Yeah, that includes India—as recent reports shamefully reveal.
Editor’s note: We have all the background you need on the military coup in Myanmar in this Big Story.
Researched by: Rachel John and Priyanka Gulati
Wait, remind me about Myanmar…
The country has been under military rule for most of its history. But no one paid much attention to its woes until Aung San Suu Kyi became an international cause célèbre—imprisoned for opposing the military regime. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while still under house arrest. And she finally took power when the military stepped back in 2015.
The coup: Once she became prime minister, Suu Kyi was far from an inspiring revolutionary. She instead appeased the military leadership to stay in power—until they decided that they had no use for her or any other civilian government in 2021. They seized power in February 2021—led by commander in chief General Min Aung Hlaing. Ever since, the junta has been crushing popular resistance—with very little restraint.
The bloody crackdown: Myanmar citizens have been incredibly brave in resisting the military—and have paid a very high price. No one has the exact numbers, but NGOs like the Assistance Association For Political Prisoners claim that at least 3,124 people have been killed—and 20,359 have been arrested since the military took power. According to the UN, there are at least 1.08 million refugees in neighbouring countries and an estimated total of 1,143,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Myanmar.
But Myanmar is now a pariah, right?
Not exactly. It took ages for the United Nations to lurch into action. In December 2022, the Security Council passed the first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years. It demanded an end to violence and called on the junta to release all political prisoners—including Suu Kyi. But the vote was hardly unanimous. Three key members of the Council abstained: Russia, China and India.
The most relevant bit is this:
Negotiations on the draft Security Council resolution began in September. The initial text—seen by the Reuters news agency—urged an end to the transfer of arms to Myanmar and threatened sanctions, but that language has since been removed.
And that’s because Russia and China are among the largest weapons suppliers to Myanmar’s military. And India is not far behind. The scrubbed language made the resolution toothless, according to democracy activists: “At the United Nations it might be seen as a diplomatic coup to get this resolution passed but in Burma it will have no impact for people living under a military coup.”
Failed sanctions regime: The US and its allies have imposed various sanctions since the coup. In January—on its second year anniversary—Washington took aim at Myanmar’s oil and gas industry. Despite the loud announcement of penalties, the military dictatorship has shown no signs of restraint—including torching entire villages and using airstrikes to target its own citizens.
A recent report found that most of these sanctions are haphazard and poorly coordinated. And they leave the most critical resources of the junta intact—specifically, its main revenue sources, access to arms, and ability to fuel its fighter jets. The other big reason for failure:
When sanctions lead to closure of one market, targeted nations have the liberty to shift their economic focus to other markets and trading partners in order to maintain a respectable volume of trade. The big players like the US or the EU imposing sanctions is treated as an opportunity by other emerging yet major economies like India, China, and South Korea. The differences in foreign policy among countries has an instrumental role to play in the survival of sanctioned economies.
Yes, we are one of the key nations that have helped keep the junta chugging along.
More arms the merrier: Despite the so-called sanctions, the military has been manufacturing a litany of weapons, including sniper rifles, anti-aircraft guns, missile launchers, grenades, bombs and landmines. In fact, the number of factories has increased from around six in 1988 to as many as 25 today. These weapons have primarily been used in documented massacres of civilians. Example: bombing and shelling of a school.
So who is selling them weapons?
According to a detailed report released by an independent group of former UN experts, companies from 13 countries—including France, Germany, China, India, Russia, Singapore and the United States—are supplying materials that are “critical” to weapons production in Myanmar. This includes licences, raw materials, software, parts and components. Also: transfer of technology to help the junta produce its own weapons at home.
[T]he Myanmar military… has become largely self-sufficient in manufacturing a range of weapons… Produced in factories known as KaPaSa and run by the military’s Directorate of Defence Industries (DDI), these weapons include guns, ammunition and landmines and are primarily being used to quash resistance to the coup.
Quote to note: The report’s authors make it plain that none of these weapons are for ‘self defence’:
Myanmar has never been attacked by a foreign country. And Myanmar does not export any arms. Since 1950, it's made its own arms to use against its own people.
Point to note: The so-called arms sanctions imposed by Western countries had very little effect. Example: high-precision machines manufactured in Europe and the US found their way to Myanmar via Taiwan.
FYI: If you’re feeling bad about the Ukraine invasion, here’s a reminder that Ukrspecexport supplied technology for the production of 2SIU self-propelled howitzers, BTR-4 armoured personnel carriers and MMT-40 light tanks.
But what evidence do we have about India…
The report: reveals that Indian companies have supplied a variety of raw materials used to manufacture weapons—such as iron, copper, high-grade steel etc. More damningly, they also helped with imports of parts such as optical sights fitted to small arms such as sniper rifles. No prizes for guessing what these ‘small arms’ are used for. Key components such as fuses and electric detonators have also been traced back to Indian companies.
Known offenders: exposed by the report and previous investigations include:
- Sandeep Metalcraft—which supplied fuses for Carl Gustaf recoilless rifles—used for attacks on ethnic minorities. It is a registered vendor of the Ministry of Defence for the production of these fuses.
- Tonbo Imaging shipped long range thermal imaging sights—“designed and optimised for assault rifles and sniper rifles and allow soldiers to ‘see around corners and shoot targets without entering the line of fire’.”
- Bharat Electronics Limited supplied 12.7 mm air defence guns for mounting on tanks or boats. FYI: while the government owns 51.1% of BEL, its other investors include Goldman Sachs and The Vanguard Group.
- Then there is the government owned Yantra—which was called out earlier this month for 122 mm gun barrels—which have been used in artillery barrages as well as air strikes against opposition groups.
Point to note: New Delhi has not denied these transactions but insists “any arms transfers that may have been made were based on commitments that were made with Myanmar’s civilian government before the attempted coup.”
But why are we so cosy with the Myanmar military?
India has strenuously resisted any effort by the US and its allies to ratchet up the pressure on Myanmar. The official reason, according to external affairs minister S. Jaishankar:
Our dilemma is this. We (India and Myanmar) have a complicated border with insurgents operating. One way to secure that border is by working with the government, which means the military. So, despite unfortunate developments, we can’t not work with them.
India shares a 1,600 km border across four North Eastern states with Myanmar. New Delhi thinks it's dangerous to turn its back on Myanmar when Beijing is cosying up to the junta. For decades now, the Indian government has viewed the military as the best guarantee of stability on a vulnerable border:
The predominant view in the Indian strategic community is to wring hands, express concern, and confess that there is little that India can do alone or in concert with others to ameliorate the situation… that is better to stick with the known devil, the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military], to safeguard our interests rather than gamble with democratic options that have often in the past… failed us; and that the best that we can do is to protect ourselves with some defensive and restrictive measures at our borders so that the conflict does not spill over into Indian territory.
In other words, it is best to make nice with a known devil to keep the greater shaitan—aka China—at bay.
The bottomline: Our Myanmar policy is hardly new—nor is the realpolitik argument used to justify it. International relations expert Rajesh Rajgopalan wrote bluntly back in 2012:
India has an unblemished record of standing with some of the most thuggish and totalitarian regimes in the world, for decades, rather than defending the people who these regimes oppress… None of this is to suggest that human rights should be the basis of India’s policy. India’s policy should be based on India’s strategic interest and this will vary with circumstance.
We will be delighted to speak up for Myanmar citizens’ human rights—if and when it serves our interests. Until then, we’re happy to ship parts for sniper rifles so the junta can take better aim at its own people.
You can read the in-depth report on weapons shipments to Myanmar here. BBC News and Al Jazeera have the highlights. For more on Bharat Electronics Limited, read this VOA report. France24 has the latest on Yantra India Limited—and Radio Free Asia has a good overview of Indian arms suppliers. Rajagopalan’s op-ed on human rights and Indian foreign policy in ORF Online is short but enlightening. The Print has more on New Delhi’s policy on Myanmar.